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May 11, 2010

Changing Speeds

Retro Game Story: Cardinals at Cubs, 6/23/84

by Ken Funck

It started as an ordinary Saturday afternoon game between a third-place club and a fifth-place club—sure, there were NBC broadcasters there, but not the main announcing team of Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola.  They were in Atlanta calling the marquee matchup between Fernando Valenzuela and Pascual Perez, while this game featured a rookie starter looking for his first major-league win, and a nondescript veteran with a career 54-57 record.  Before it was over, however, one player would hit for the cycle, another would stroke a bases-loaded pinch-hit single in extra innings to win the game, and neither would be remembered as the game’s hero.  This Cubs/Cardinals tilt at Wrigley Field was one for the annals, and if you’ve ponied up the cash to log onto CompuServe to read this you probably want more detailed analysis than you’re likely to find in Monday's USA Today—and that’s what I’ll try to provide, along with some statistical tidbits from the recent cutting-edge work of “sabermetricians” Bill James, John Thorn, and Pete Palmer.

A strong start driven by their powerful offense had seen the Cubs enter June in first place and on the cover of Sports Illustrated after splitting a four-game set at Veterans Stadium, a meeting described as “Phillies West” (with the Cubs roster sporting 11 ex-Philadelphia players) vs. “Phillies East.”  However, in last weekend’s Wrigley rematch the defending world champions took four straight from their upstart protégés, sweeping the Cubs (36-31) back into third place behind both the Phillies and the surprising first-place Mets going into today’s action.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ commitment to Whiteyball has been as strong as ever, but with this year’s club lacking not only power but the primary catalyst of their 1982 championship—dominant pitching—the speedsters from St. Louis have been puttering aimlessly around the .500 mark all season, entering today’s action five games back.

The pitching matchup seems to favor the Cubs, with St. Louis sending young junkballer Ralph Citarella to the mound for his first career start, while the Cubs counter with veteran lefty Steve Trout, 7-3 on the year with a nifty 2.30 ERA.  “Rainbow” surprisingly comes into the day as the steadiest Cub starter on a staff heretofore riddled with injury and ineffectiveness, so with a strong wind blowing in from right field, a low-scoring affair seems to be in order.  St. Louis jumps on top in the first in true Whiteyball fashion, with Ozzie Smith drawing a walk, moving to second on a ground out, and scoring on a George Hendrick single.  The Cubs answer with a manufactured run of their own in the bottom half, with Bob Dernier slapping a leadoff single, stealing second (his 27th stolen base of the year), and scoring on Ryne Sandberg’s single.

Observers have mentioned Dernier’s speed, defense in center, and .313 batting average in the leadoff spot as key components of the Cubs’ surprising success, but his most impressive contribution is likely his .407 on-base percentage.  As color analyst Tony Kubek notes to young play-by-play man Bob Costas during the broadcast, walks and OBP are probably the most overlooked and important statistics in baseball, elaborating after a Gary Matthews walk that “his .268 batting average doesn’t reflect his on-base percentage, the true worth of Matthews hitting in that three spot, keeping things going.”  Most fans unfortunately don’t value or understand this fundamental baseball truth, so it is refreshing to hear Kubek express it so clearly and eloquently.  Time and the truth are on sabermetrics’ side, and with respected player/announcers like Kubek around to help teach fans this foreign language, there’s little doubt OBP will soon be accepted by broadcasters of all stripes as the indispensable metric it is.

The Cardinals have never been worse than second in the NL in OBP during the Whiteyball Era, and they put on an impressive display of out-avoidance in the top half of the second.  Singles by Tommy Herr, Citarella, and Lonnie Smith, mixed in with walks to Art Howe and Smith, put St. Louis on top 3-1 and load the bases for Willie McGee, who silences the raucous Wrigley Field crowd with a three-run triple.  Trout heads for the showers down 6-1, replaced by Rich Bordi, and when McGee scores on Hendrick’s ground out the Cardinals look set to cruise to an easy victory.

Bordi manage to stop the bleeding in the middle innings, but the Cubs have a difficult time solving Citarella’s sweeping bender and are still down 7-1 going into the bottom of the fifth before the top of their order strikes again. Jay Johnstone lines a pinch single to left, then Dernier drops a beautiful bunt single down the third-base line.  Both runners move up when a 58-foot curveball from Citarella finds the backstop, and Johnstone comes in to score on Sandberg’s weak chopper to short.  With Dernier at third and two down, Matthews follows with an RBI double that will look like a line drive in the box score, but was really just a bouncer down the third-base line that somehow eluded the 38-year-old Howe—still a passable fielder, but you have to suspect that Ken Oberkfell, traded last week to Atlanta for Ken Dayley and Mike Jorgensen, would have made that play.  Defense leads to good pitching as sure as Carson leads to Letterman, and for a speed-and-defense team like the Cardinals shipping out Oberkfell seems like a questionable move.

St. Louis strikes back right away, however, touching former Phillies chin-music conductor Dickie Noles for two runs.  Smith drops down his own bunt single to again set the table for McGee.  The Cardinals center fielder rarely meets a pitch he doesn’t like, and puts a big hurt on the first fastball he sees from Noles, sending a laser shot through the wind into the right-field bleachers.  St. Louis is again up six runs, and with a single and a bases-clearing triple already in the books, McGee has five RBI and is a double short of the cycle.  A rattled Noles proceeds to walk Hendrick on four pitches and give up a Tommy Herr single before sinkerballer Warren Brusstar came on to strike out Howe and end the threat.

Citarella opens the sixth, but the rookie’s control suddenly deserts him as Keith Moreland walked on five pitches, and after Jody Davis takes a called third strike, Ron Cey catches a high-and-tight fastball on his left wrist.  Herzog had seen enough and calls on ace set-up man Neil Allen to stop the rally before it can take root.  But shortstop Larry Bowa, looking like Larry Wilcox in his day-game shades, draws another walk to load the bases, and when pinch-hitter Richie Hebner bloops a single in front of a sliding Hendrick in right field, the Cubs have gained a run and loaded the bases in front of the engine that has been driving them all day: Dernier and Sandberg, the young duo Harry Caray has taken to calling “The Daily Double.”  True to form, Dernier pulls a fastball just inside the bag at third and into left field for a two-run double, and Sandberg lines a sharp single to left to score Bowa and a flying Dernier, with Sandberg out at second when Lonnie Smith’s throw was cut off.  Allen ends things by fooling Matthews on a nasty 0-2 curveball, but the damage has been done—despite only one hard-hit ball (Sandberg’s single), the Cubs have plated five runs and cut the lead to 9-8.

Things stay on serve in the bottom of the seventh, when a two-out walk to Davis prompts Herzog to call on Bruce Sutter, owner of baseball’s single most devastating pitch, the split-fingered fastball.  Herzog usually waits until the eighth to bring in his All-Star stopper, but Sutter hasn’t pitched in six days and like all relievers is certainly willing and able to toss three or more innings. The former Cub promptly vindicates his skipper’s decision by inducing a weak grounder from pinch hitter Ron Hassey to end the threat.

To start the eighth, Cubs manager Jim Frey sends former Yankee George Frazier to the mound, eschewing fireballer Lee Smith.  Why wouldn’t Frey use his best reliever in the eighth inning of a one-run game?  Because it’s become an unwritten rule not to use your stopper when you’re trailing in a game, a decision traced to former Cubs skipper Herman Franks and his use of Sutter during his Chicago sojourn.  This new wrinkle in bullpen usage seems counterproductive—wouldn’t you want to use your best pitcher in any close-game situation?  If for some unfathomable reason your fireman was never allowed to pitch more than one inning, it might make sense to save him for when you have the lead—but it’s hard to imagine such a usage pattern actually taking hold, since this would limit your best reliever to a fraction of his current workload.  No smart manager would stand for that.

In any case, Frazier matches Sutter pitch for pitch into the top of the ninth with the score still 9-8.  With two outs and Herr, who had led off with a single, on second, Cardinals utilityman Andy Van Slyke is intentionally walked to bring Sutter to the plate.  Even though this is only his seventh plate appearance of the young season, Herzog lets his stopper bat and Sutter rolls out to end the inning.

It’s here that this relatively normal baseball game begins to move towards transcendence, bending to the will of Sandberg, who leads off the bottom of the ninth.  Last year’s Gold Glove winner no longer fits the good-field/no-hit sobriquet of his first two seasons.  Sandberg entered the game hitting .321 with a surprising .531 slugging percentage, and puts that power on display by lofting a 1-1 fastball into the left-field bleachers to tie the game, sending the sellout crowd into hysterics.  A visibly upset Sutter then grooves a fastball to Matthews, who promptly lines it into left for a single, then steals second with one out and Moreland at the plate.  With Matthews in scoring position, the Cubs right fielder grounds one sharply up the middle, but the incomparable Ozzie Smith ranges to his left and makes the play.  Moreland throws his helmet in disgust—not at Ozzie’s fine defensive play, which is expected, but at the infield grass that slowed down the ball before it could scoot into center field for a game-winning single.  It’s true that the Wrigley infield is cut like a tall-grass prairie to help cover the declining range of Bowa and Cey, who at this stage of their career bear more resemblance to prairie schooners than left-side infielders—but Smith would have fielded that ball even on the carpet at Busch Stadium, just as he fields pinch hitter Gary Woods’ chopper to end the inning.

Frey finally brings Lee Smith into the game to start the 10th, and things suddenly take an even stranger turn.  Ozzie Smith leads off, and lofts a 1-0 popup down the third-base line just past the bullpen mound.  Matthews tracks it well as Smith’s foul drive drifts over the railing, and with a well-timed jump Matthews tried to snatch it back from the stands.  But an anonymous fan in a black leather vest with a cigarette dangling from his mouth reaches up and knocks the ball out of Sarge’s reach, keeping Smith’s at-bat alive.  Matthews pounds his glove and pumps his fist in disgust, and it is easy to understand his frustration when Ozzie slaps an 0-2 fastball past third for a leadoff single, but it would be difficult to expect fans to keep from reaching for a souvenir, regardless of the game situation—especially fans of a team like the Cubs who have played so few meaningful games in the last quarter-century.

That brings McGee to the plate, and after Ozzie Smith steals second, the one-man wrecking crew strikes again, lining a shot into left.  Smith scores easily, but a hustling Matthews cuts off McGee’s bounding drive before it can get into the corner, holding him to a double.  McGee had just used his bat to become the first Cardinal to hit for the cycle since Lou Brock in 1975, but he wasn’t done showing off his wheels, moving to third on Hendrick’s bouncer to short (contrary to conventional wisdom), and roaring home to tally an insurance run on Steve Braun’s ground out to first.

St. Louis has grabbed back an 11-9 lead, and with a rejuvenated Sutter toeing the rubber in the bottom of the 10th and the bottom of the order due up, things look bleak for the Cubbie faithful.  Bowa and Hebner can't lay off Sutter’s split-finger pitch, both bouncing out weakly to the right side, and Costas is already naming McGee the player of the game when Dernier comes to the plate, his uniform apparently soaked in some sort of compound which releases a gas that causes short-term confusion in umpires.  After the Cubs center fielder, who had seen the ball well all day, manages to lay off two split-finger pitches that dropped out of the zone, umpire Doug Harvey seems to lose all understanding of the words “strike” and “ball.”  Sutter’s 2-0 fastball looks like a strike at the knees, but Harvey calls it low, while a 3-0 fastball that is clearly inside is called strike one.  Sutter’s next fastball is high, but again Harvey calls it a strike, moving the count to 3-2.

One strike away from a Cardinals' victory, Sutter spots his fastball at the knees on the inside corner, and Dernier offers at it but tries to check his swing.  Meanwhile, the soporific on Dernier’s uniform finally starts to affect catcher Darrell Porter, who reacts late to the pitch and lunges at it, causing the ball to glance off his glove and bound towards the first base dugout.  The pitch was probably in the strike zone, and Dernier probably went around, but Harvey calls it a ball anyway.  If Porter had properly framed the pitch it’s hard to imagine the game wouldn’t have ended there.  It’s an old baseball axiom that catchers earn they pay on defense, and this may have been a prime example, but no one has yet measured such a thing.  Given the current interest in baseball statistics and the growing prevalence of personal computing, I expect better defensive metrics for catchers are just over the horizon.

With Dernier grinning like a Cheshire cat on first, Sandberg comes to the plate representing the tying run, setting up the individual confrontation that has come to define this game.  In a flash, Sutter leaves a 1-1 fastball up in the zone, and Sandberg once again takes baseball’s most dominant reliever deep to tie the game, giving him five hits and seven runs batted in on the day.

What happens next is anticlimax.  The Cubs win it in the bottom of the 11th, when Durham walks, steals second, scampers to third when Porter’s throw skipps past Herr, and scores on Dave Owen’s pinch-hit line single.  Durham’s steal and Owen’s game-winning hit will surely fade, as will all memory of Dernier’s clutch walk, and McGee’s heroics, and the Cubs’ big sixth inning, and the fan interference on Ozzie’s pop-fly.  All that will remain are the images of Sandberg, and Sutter, and two bruised baseballs screaming over an ivy-covered wall.

A few notes:

  • Both the Phillies and the Mets won today, so the Cubs remain in third, a game and a half back. While the Mets, led by rookie phenom Dwight Gooden, currently sit atop the division, they’ve actually scored fewer runs than they’ve given up.  One of Bill James’ greatest inventions is the Pythagorean Expectation, which uses runs scored and allowed to calculate what each team’s record “should” be, given a standard distribution of runs scored and allowed.  By that measure, the Cubs and Philles, and their powerful offenses, come out on top, with the Mets far behind.  The Mets have been lucky to overcome their anemic offense, while the last-place Pirates, who have scored more runs than they’ve given up, have been unlucky to not take better advantage of their terrific pitching.  Look for the Mets to fall, the Pirates to rise, and the Phillies East and West to battle it out the rest of the way.
  •  During the broadcast, Herzog was quoted as saying Ozzie Smith saves his team 100 runs each year on defense.  Thanks to the work of John Thorn and Pete Palmer, as outlined in the new book The Hidden Game of Baseball, we can now try to verify that statement.  Palmer and Thorn have developed a metric called “Defensive Runs” to quantify defense.  By that measure, Ozzie’s best defensive season was 1980, when he saved his team 42.8 runs, second-best of all time behind Bill Mazeroski, who saved 46.5 runs in 1963.  Mazeroski holds down the third and fourth spots on the list, while Sandberg’s 1983 season is fifth-best, saving the Cubs 39.9 runs.  If you haven’t read Thorn and Palmer’s new book, run out and get it—the Linear Weights System chapter will blow your mind.
  • The Cubs might have been at a distinct disadvantage had the game gone any longer.  Woods was their last position player, since they were down to only 13 position players due to having to wait a day to bring up Henry Cotto.  All six relievers pitched, with starter Chuck Rainey warming up as an emergency option.
  • Rick Sutcliffe will make his second Cubs start tomorrow, facing Ricky Horton in the series finale.  Sutcliffe, added to the roster in a trade with the Indians at the high cost of Mel Hall and top prospect Joe Carter, looked sharp in winning his first start last week against the Pirates, and is the latest attempt to help patch the club’s leaky rotation, with Dick Ruthven and Scott Sanderson hurt and Rainey and Rick Reuschel struggling.  The first hoped-for patch, Dennis Eckersley, hasn’t taken since coming over from Boston last month, posting a 1-4 record with a 4.81 ERA and only 18 strikeouts in 39.1 innings.  He looks done.  The Cubs have a potent offense, but they’ll only go as far as their pitching can take them, and right now it doesn’t look like enough to win them the division unless Sutcliffe suddenly becomes Cy Young good.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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